A prolonged and painful death watch

Dateline: Tue 22 Jul 2008

Writing, and re-writing, the obituary of the American newspaper has become quite the past-time of late, with morbid justification.

Several readers emailed links to "I Read the News Today...Oh Boy" by Eric Alterman from the Nation, July 16. The gist is that newspapers have never had a lower moment. They endured "Black Friday" July 11, when shares of seven publicly held newspaper companies, including Gannett, hit their lowest points in modern history.

Allan Mutter, who writes an excellent blog, "Reflections of a Newsosauer," was also quoted in the Nation article. Mutter called July 11 "perhaps the worst single trading day ever for the industry."

The gist of Alterman's piece is that newspapers are dying, and nobody seems to know how to revive the patient. More evidence: on July 8, Mutter reported on the trend in newspaper management to cut not only the meat but the marrow out of operations by continuing to reduce newsroom staff.

This, in my view, cuts to the heart of what is causing newspapers to sicken and die.

Traditionally, Mutter says, the news industry's rule of thumb had been to employ one journalist for every 1,000 papers in circulation. Hence he takes note of the decision by the Chicago Tribune (just one of many examples) to cut its staff by 14 percent to 498 journalists -- "a ratio of 0.88 newsfolk for every 1,000 of the paper's 556.8k daily readers.

And what of the Indianapolis Star? While its death rattle was not reported on, it's suffering the same dread disease.

Those who read exec editor Dennis Ryerson's Sunday column learned that, according to the headline, "Star needs to dig deeper into critical issues."

After reciting a litany of stories that demonstrate "extensive reporting" done in the past year or so by the paper, and congratulating himself for avoiding "the massive layoffs that have affected others," (a misrepresentation at best), Ryerson goes on to acknowledge that his new boss, publisher Michael Kane, has given Ryerson his marching orders: public service reporting is a priority.

That's going to be a tall order for Ryerson, given the newsroom staffing numbers. A Star link, probably from 2005 or 2005, when times were relatively good, shows that the Star newsroom staff then was about 147, not counting the 25 to 30 or so copy editors employed and not listed on the link.

Then I added up all the people on that list of 147 who had left -- John Fritze, Zorba Rose, Bonnie Britton, Skip Berry, Kevin Corcoran, Staci Hupp, Rob Schneider, Kim Hooper, Blair Claflin, Tim Wheatley, J.K. Wall, Norm Heikens, George McLaren, Ellen Miller, John Shaughnessy, David Mannweiler, RiShawn Biddle, Michele McNeil, John Strauss, Dick Walton, Vic Caleca, Pam Fine -- the beat goes on. I counted 41 talented individuals who are no longer part of that list alone, myself included.

Were they replaced? Sure, there have been hires of a few young people. I wish them the best, but the truth is, older reporters were pushed out the door by Ryerson in an effort to cut costs. The newbies lack institutional memory. It takes years of hard work to build the sort of talent and news instincts that characterized the work of Kevin Corcoran, Dick Walton, John Fritze, Michele McNeil and others -- I mention those four simply because they often won prizes for the sort of reporting Ryerson says the new publisher now wants.

What to do to revive the patient?

That's the rub, as pointed out in "I Read the News Today...Oh, Boy." Nobody seems to have any answers. One suggestion is to include newspaper subscriptions along with tuition fees for college students. Make them pay for it, and then they'll read it.

That's not going to happen.

The only way to save papers is to hire talented people -- mavericks, in fact, of the sort who used to infect and energize newsrooms. Hire them, let them do their jobs and reward them for good work.

A final graph telling from the Nation, referring to the LA Times, which just got rid of another 150 people in its newsroom:

"For those who embrace the now omnipresent mantra that the staff will simply have to 'do more with less,' blogger Kevin Roderick of LA Observed notes, "Yes you can put out a good paper with 700 staffers--but not a better paper than the one paying customers are already fleeing."

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